Background: Sentinel lymph node (SLN) biopsy has become a standard method of staging patients with cutaneous melanoma. Sentinel lymph node biopsy usually is performed by intradermal injection of a vital blue dye (isosulfan blue) plus radioactive colloid (technetium sulfur colloid) around the site of the tumor. Intraoperative gamma probe detection has been shown to improve the rate of SLN identification compared to the use of blue dye alone. However, multiple sentinel nodes often are detected using the gamma probe. It is not clear whether these additional lymph nodes represent true sentinel nodes, or second-echelon lymph nodes that have received radiocolloid particles that have passed through the true sentinel node. This analysis was performed to determine the frequency with which these less radioactive lymph nodes contain metastatic disease when the most radioactive, or "hottest," node does not.
Materials and methods: In the Sunbelt Melanoma Trial, 1184 patients with cutaneous melanoma of Breslow thickness 1.0 mm or more had sentinel lymph nodes identified. Sentinel lymph node biopsy was performed by injection of technetium sulfur colloid plus isosulfan blue dye in 99% of cases. Intraoperative determination of the degree of radioactivity of sentinel nodes (ex vivo) was measured, as well as the degree of blue dye staining.
Results: Sentinel nodes were identified in 1373 nodal basins in 1184 patients. A total of 288 of 1184 patients (24.3%) were found to have sentinel node metastases detected by histology or immunohistochemistry. Nodal metastases were detected in 306 nodal basins in these 288 patients. There were 175 nodal basins from 170 patients in which at least one positive sentinel node was found and more than one sentinel node was harvested. Blue dye staining was found in 86.3% of the histologically positive sentinel nodes and 66.4% of the negative sentinel nodes. In 40 of 306 positive nodal basins (13.1%), the most radioactive sentinel node was negative for tumor when another, less radioactive, sentinel node was positive for tumor. In 20 of 40 cases (50%), the less radioactive positive sentinel node contained 50% or less of the radioactive count of the hottest lymph node. The cervical lymph node basin was associated with an increased likelihood of finding a positive sentinel node other than the hottest node.
Conclusions: If only the most radioactive sentinel node in each basin had been removed, 13.1% of the nodal basins with positive sentinel nodes would have been missed. It is recommended that all blue lymph nodes and all nodes that measure 10% or higher of the ex vivo radioactive count of the hottest sentinel node should be harvested for optimal detection of nodal metastases.